Let’s get this straight from the start: Just because I’m swilling wine at 9 am this particular Tuesday does not mean I have a problem. Rather, I’ve joined the ranks of professional wine tasters. I’ve done this before—the swirling, sniffing, sloshing, and, yes, spitting—but never in such elite company.
On this day, I am joined by seven wine experts for a blind taste test of 52 wines from 26 New Jersey wineries—the best of what the Garden State’s burgeoning wine industry has to offer. The taste test was organized by New Jersey Monthly and held at Blue Morel, the attractive restaurant and wine bar at the Westin Governor Morris Hotel in Morristown.
Each of us arrives at the tasting with high hopes for Jersey wines—but minimal knowledge. The resident Jersey-wine expert among the judges is Gary Pavlis, an associate professor with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, chairman of the annual New Jersey Wine Competition and past president of the American Wine Society.
“The number of wineries in the state has doubled in the last 10 years,” Pavlis tells us after we have taken our seats in Blue Morel’s comfortable wine room. “In fact, it’s the only agricultural segment with that rate of growth. Many other segments are shrinking. You might say that New Jersey wineries are keeping the Garden in the Garden State.”
Pavlis’s knowledge of Jersey wines would come in handy for the rest of us. We are split into two panels of four judges each. I am on Panel A with Pavlis, who is seated to my left. To my right is Nicholas Harary, chef and owner of Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, consistently one of the 25 best restaurants in the state, according to this magazine, and himself a former sommelier. Next to Harary is wine consultant Tim Hirsch of the Wine Library in Springfield.
Across the table sits Panel B: wine educator and sales consultant George Staikos of the Educated Grape in Flemington and an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University; Sue Guerra, director of marketing for Gary’s Wine & Marketplace in Wayne (and a former New Jersey Monthly wine blogger); Brian Hider, wine director of the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster (another top-25 restaurant, per New Jersey Monthly); and Sharon Sevrens, proprietor of retailer Amanti Vino in Montclair, who holds a diploma from Wine and Spirit Education Trust and is a certified wine educator.
In preparation for the tasting, Sharla Blanz, author of On the Vine, the njmonthly.com wine blog, has numbered the competing bottles and disguised each with a plain brown wrapper. The wines are divided into seven categories: four categories for reds, two for whites and one for fruit wine.
As the first flight of wines is poured, Blanz announces that only one wine out of the 52 entered has proved corked and cannot be judged. This low rate is a testament, she and Pavlis agree, to improved winemaking techniques on the part of New Jersey wine makers. Pavlis, a veteran of countless wine competitions, recalls one amateur tasting in which live ants crawled out of a bottle.
Pavlis is an unabashed advocate for Jersey wines. He whets our taste buds by telling us of a Riesling from Alba Vineyards that a couple of years ago helped put Jersey on the wine map by taking gold in a national competition on the West Coast.
My panel’s initial tasting will be eight Chardonnays; Panel B is tasting six entrants in the Other Whites category, which we later learn include a Traminette, two Cayugas, a Vidal Blanc and two bottles of Pinot Gris. For each category, we have a score sheet on which we are to record each wine’s performance across five qualities: appearance, aroma, taste, balance (“elements—alcohol, body, taste—are balanced”) and finish. Appearance is rated on a 1-to-3 scale (3 being the highest); all other qualities are rated from 1 to 5, making any wine’s highest possible score 23. Once all the wines have been tasted, the scores will be combined, and the top scorer in each of the seven categories will take gold; the next, silver.
As my panel slurps and spits, Guerra asks her fellow judges on Panel B about their wine number 6.
“Anyone have any idea what variety this is?” The question is reassuring: Even the professionals can be stumped! When nothing definitive emerges, Pavlis leans across the table for a sip to see if he might help. “My guess is there’s at least some Cayuga, because the aroma is flowery, almost perfumy,” he says. (At the end of the tasting, the wine is revealed to be a Four Sisters Cayuga.)
When my panel finishes scoring the Chardonnays, Hirsch remarks on the surprising amount of oak he detected. Pavlis, guessing (correctly) that most of the samples are from the 2010 vintage, conjectures that, ironically, that summer’s perfect weather conditions caused some wine makers to overcorrect, “perhaps using oak where less or none was needed.”
Harary, meanwhile, voices a strong preference for Chardonnay number 2, while lamenting the very low acidity of number 7. In the end, that number 2 (from Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery) turns out to earn his highest score of the day. Hirsch, too, gives his highest score to a Chardonnay—but his choice is wine number 3. As a group, these wines will turn out to be the best received, garnering the highest cumulative total.
My panel’s second flight is Other Reds, meaning anything other than wines that are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Cabernet Franc (each of those has its own category). The reds we are tasting could be a blend with less than 75 percent of any one of these, or they could be a different varietal, like Barbera or Chambourcin (a hybrid). Harary and I are simultaneously repelled by the aroma of wine number 2; it reminds Pavlis of black olives. Yet that aroma is exactly what Pavlis and Hirsch like about it! Now I’m feeling quite smug because, obviously, Harary and I are like, you know, simpatico when it comes to wines. Sadly, this proves to be one of the few times all morning that we are in sync.
Panel B, meantime, is wrestling with the Cabernet Francs. Sevrens bemoans the pine-resin aroma of Cab Franc number 3. This category prompts Hirsch to comment on the attractive pricing of Jersey wines. “When customers come into my store asking for a mid-level priced Bordeaux, I really want to steer them away from France to Spain or Italy, which produce far superior wines at that price level,” he offers. “So, too, New Jersey wineries should be applauded for the quality that they provide at their price point,” which, on average, is the mid-teens. “Plus, for some customers it can be a buy-local thing, and that’s to be admired.”
But Harary is having none of this. Referring to his restaurant’s wine list, he proclaims: “Of the  wines I’ve tasted so far, I would buy only one.” To which Sevrens fires back, “But what’s your typical buy rate?” Harary admits she has “a fair point,” that in any tasting he might be similarly—and notoriously—picky. Yet he insists he wouldn’t choose some of these wines under any circumstances, “even if money were no object.”
The fun begins in earnest when Panel B tastes their three fruit wines: one pear, one cranberry, one blueberry. Sevrens takes a sniff of the cranberry and declares, “I think it’s off! It has the smell of nail-polish remover.” A glass is handed across the table for Pavlis to assess. “Nope,” he says, “that’s the way it’s supposed to smell.” Guerra offers that, although the wine may not smell like cranberries, it does in fact taste like them. Sevrens takes a sip and concurs. “It actually tastes far better than it smells,” she declares.
Scoring the fruit wines brings up the question of how to judge any wine’s merits. Do you rate them based on personal preference? No, we all agree, whether you happen to like a particular variety or not is irrelevant. The judgment rests on how well the wine is made: that it expresses the true nature of the fruit (grape or otherwise) and that it lacks flaws. At the end of the flight Sevrens, and her fellow panelists are surprised to find themselves impressed by both the cranberry and blueberry entries.
“The blueberry is absolutely balanced,” says Sevrens. “There’s nothing wrong with this wine.” Pavlis chimes in that raspberry wine (although not among the submissions) is “to die for” with cheesecake. I add that I make great vinaigrette with Tomasello’s blueberry. To everyone’s astonishment, the fruit wines as a group eventually come in as the second-highest rated flight.
Staikos asks Pavlis which white varietal grows best in New Jersey. “Riesling in the north,” is the short answer, but Pavlis adds that, among the reds, Cabernet Franc is good north to south, while Cabernet Sauvignon is good only in the warmer southern part of the state. In the end, wines from every corner of New Jersey would be among the winners—although 10 of the 12 silver and gold winners for grape wines would be from the Outer Coastal Plain. This official American Viticultural Area designation includes 2.25 million acres in southeastern New Jersey, where soil and climatic conditions are considered among the best on the East Coast for producing high-quality wine.
We move into our next flights. Panel B sips the Cabernet Francs, while my Panel A forges ahead with six more Other Reds. When I say aloud that I’m particularly intrigued by the aroma of wine number 1, Pavlis guesses that the grape is Cynthiana, a North American cultivar also known as Norton. Again, the man doesn’t miss: Eventually we learn it’s Renault’s Cynthiana. I am struck by the taste of wine number 6; on my score sheet I write, “Odd, odd, odd.” Happily, the entire panel likes red number 2, which proves to have one of the few truly floral aromas of all 12 in the category.
Panel B, meantime, is having a rough go with their Cabernet Francs. One judge finds number 1 “too austere,” while number 6 prompts another to declare, “It smells like a barn—and not in a good way.” Still another counters, “I’m still getting over number 4!” while two others bemoan the residual sugar in number 5. At the end of the day, Cab Franc is the second-least successful group in the tasting. The dubious honor of finishing last goes to Panel B’s final group of eight Merlots.
Five Cabernet Sauvignons comprise my panel’s final flight, and they wind up in the middle of the pack. I wonder aloud if my palate may by this point just be shot, and I notice, days later, that all of our tasting notes trail off at this point.
While the scores are being tallied, we sample the other panel’s wines, while Blanz unmasks the identity of the various personal picks and pans. Topping Sevrens’s list, she learns, was Four JG’s Cayuga white. Her second favorite was that funky-nosed cranberry. “Once it opened up, it was really interesting,” she says.
Finally, the winners are revealed. Amalthea Cellars takes gold in two categories, for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, as does Valenzano Winery, which tops the Merlot choices and the Other Reds category for its Cabernet/Merlot blend. Cape May Winery and Vineyard earns gold for its Chardonnay and silver for its Cabernet Sauvignon. And Plagido’s Winery gets the gold in the fruit category for its much-discussed cranberry wine and silver for its Chambourcin in the Other Red category.
In the Other Whites category, Bellview Winery takes the gold with its Traminette, and Old York Cellars gets silver for its Pinot Gris. Silver awards also go to Hawk Haven (Chardonnay), Auburn Road Vineyard and Winery (Merlot), Four JG’s Vineyards (Cabernet Franc) and Four Sisters Winery (Mia’s Blueberry).
With the winners announced, the judges express mixed feelings and cautious optimism. “I was hoping it would be better,” laments one judge. All agree that the major let downs are the lack of acidity in the whites and the varying quality among the reds.
“We all have a sense of pride about New Jersey,” says Staikos. “We want it to work. I was hoping to walk away with a particular variety that excels, upon which the state could build its reputation. There wasn’t one that we could say, ‘That’s ours, that’s our own,’ like Merlot is for Long Island.” On the other hand, he adds, “there were some well-made wines, for sure, that showed a noticeable commitment to higher levels of wine making.”
Harary says he plans to add his favorite of the day—the Hawk Haven Chardonnay—to the wine list at Nicholas, but on the whole had hoped for better. “I wanted to go back and tell my group, ‘We’re going to add three New Jersey wines to the list.’ I can’t do that.”
Guerra says that, having tasted Cape May Winery’s winning Chardonnay post-judging, she would buy it. “There’s hope!” she says, but adds, “It’s just not happening with these Merlots.”
Pavlis says he is buoyed by “the overall improvement,” adding, “the number of flawed wines was much lower than in the past. In a [New Jersey] competition this past May, out of 350 wines entered, only four were flawed. And within each flight today, there was a wine I liked.”
Hirsch concurs: “I could see the promise of a couple of wines from each flight.”
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to see success over the years,” says Sevrens. “I’m encouraged by Gary’s words about changes happening in the vineyards and wineries.”
As for me, I’m just happy to have made it through. I am particularly tickled to learn that my high scorer of the day—Valenzano Winery’s Cabernet/Merlot blend—took gold in its class. When I later review its total scores, I am reassured to find that all four of us on Panel A had rated it at the top of the group. Phew.
Veteran food writer Pat Tanner reviews restaurants for New Jersey Monthly and blogs at dinewithpat.com.